Fire

With Under-20 World Cup back, Fire's Serbian coaching trio relive historic title

With Under-20 World Cup back, Fire's Serbian coaching trio relive historic title

In the early hours of the American morning on Thursday, the United States Under-20 men’s national team beat New Zealand 6-0 in South Korea to advance to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup.

It is the second straight U-20 World Cup in which the U.S. has made it to the quarterfinals. The last time the Americans were knocked out in penalty kicks by Veljko Paunovic’s Serbia.

Paunovic and Serbia went on to win that tournament. Serbia’s historic victory, the first for Serbia in any World Cup at any age level, was the big boost to Paunovic’s coaching resume that led the Chicago Fire to hire him five months later.

“Of course it gave me I think recognition,” Paunovic said after Fire training on Thursday. “Winning the World Cup is always one of the greatest achievements so it gives you also the confidence that what you are doing is the right way to do (things), even (when) you always believe in your work. The title like that gives you the extra motivation and actually shapes and opens the path for you to keep working and improving on yourself and gives you more opportunities for a job obviously.”

Two of Paunovic’s countrymen from the coaching staff of that victorious Serbian team followed him to the Fire. Marko Mitrovic is one of the Fire’s assistant coaches and Aleksandar Saric coaches the goalkeepers. For everyone involved in that Serbian team, it was a life-changing event.

Serbia has had success in other sports. Tennis star Novak Djokovic has won 12 Grand Slam titles. Serbia has Olympic gold medals in men’s volleyball (2000), men’s water polo (2016) and the men’s basketball team won a pair of FIBA World Cups (1998 and 2002).

In soccer though, Serbia had never won a World Cup at any age level before. As a combined Yugoslavia, the country won the 1987 U-20 World Cup, but independent Serbia hadn’t found success on its own.

“That’s probably the biggest achievement in history of Serbian soccer,” Mitrovic said. “We are always the generation. Like the Cubs here with people waiting 100 years for the Cubs to win the World Series. That’s something that people in Serbia dreamed that Serbia would become the World Cup champion. We had more 100,000 people waiting in the streets for us after that. (It) is probably everyday that I think about that. That’s something that stays behind us through all our lives.”

With a population of just over 7 million, Serbia has fewer people than the Chicagoland area.

“It’s difficult to win MLS here with one city,” Saric said. “Imagine to win the world with the population the size of Chicago winning the world championship, which really is a great achievement.”

The coaches are able to keep in touch with the players from the championship team through a WhatsApp group. They communicate regularly.

“They are now all around the world, but we are still in touch,” Saric said. “We celebrate the date also when we win that.”

With a new set of players and the coaching trio now with the Fire, Serbia didn’t make it to the final round of European qualifying tournament. With Serbia out, all three took note of the success of the U.S. team.

“They are doing a great job,” Mitrovic said of the U.S. “We played against them (two years ago) and they are there again now, which I think that (coach) Tab Ramos is doing great things with that national team. Doing it twice in a row, quarterfinals, it’s a big achievement.”

Saric fondly recalled the penalty shootout in the quarterfinal between the U.S. and Serbia. Serbia goalkeeper Predrag Rajković, who was named goalkeeper of the tournament, and American goalkeeper Zack Steffen, now the starter for the Columbus Crew, both made three saves in the first eight rounds before Serbia finally won in the ninth round.

“I said because I respect what I saw in Steffen’s game before we play America, I said who wins this game, he will be probably the best goalkeeper of the tournament,” Saric said. “I said that for our newspapers. It was an amazing (shootout). We lead three times. Rajkovic saved three penalties and Steffen always when we need to score, he saved... Then it happened Rajkovic saved one extra penalty and our captain scored.”

The U.S. plays its quarterfinal against Venezuela on Sunday. Paunovic, Mitrovic and Saric have their eyes on this year’s tournament, but from a different vantage point. They are looking for potential players to bring to the Fire, although memories of two years ago are still strong.

“It’s one of the competitions that for me has a very personal and deep root inside of my feelings because of what we achieved for my country, but also it’s the great opportunity to see great young players performing and competing for the World Cup,” Paunovic said.

With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

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USA TODAY

With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

Due to a calf injury, Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived at the training field later than the rest of his Fire teammates on a Tuesday in September. He sat down on a bench by himself and started singing a song in a foreign language.

It turned out to be a Serbian folk song he learned thanks to his wife, Serbian former tennis pro Anna Ivanovic.

During games Schweinsteiger is ultra competitive and always very serious. During practice and off the field, he is a bit of a goofball. Always cracking jokes and keeping things loose.

“I think that helps a lot because you see how he is on the field, he’s very serious, and he expects a lot of himself and of his teammates, but then off the field he’s very easy going,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said.

Schweinsteiger's return via a one-year deal was announced on Wednesday via reports from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and German outlet Bild. It's obviously a big deal for on-field reasons after Schweinsteiger helped revitalize the franchise in 2017. He also brings plenty of attention to the club in the form of fans from around the world and more media coverage of him and, by proxy, the team. However, his value goes beyond even that in a way that not everyone gets to see.

On the day he sang the Serbian folk song, Sept. 12, Schweinsteiger had missed the previous match due to the injury and was kept away from the training field that week. Even if he only stretched and jogged on that Tuesday, Schweinsteiger still seemed excited to return to the field.

He wasn’t able to play with his teammates so he turned to the few spectators, a few Fire staffers and myself, for his entertainment while he stretched in anticipation of his run. He asked each person their second favorite club team, the implication being the Fire would be the favorite team. Schweinsteiger said his was Partizan Belgrade “for family reasons,” another nod to Ivanovic.

“He’s got a really easy going, goofy demeanor about him,” McCarty said. “That helps the guys and that helps him relate to the guys.”

If Schweinsteiger isn’t the team’s class clown, it would be Matt Lampson. The goalkeeper is willing to make a joke out of just about anything. The two even sparred on an occasion after a training session.

In May, Lampson was being interviewed by two reporters and had his back to the training field. Schweinsteiger decided to kick balls at Lampson to distract him and hit him in the calf on the second try from about 20 yards away. As Lampson turned to see what happened, Schweinsteiger growled as a show of pride in his accomplishment.

Naturally, when it was Schweinsteiger’s turn to be interviewed, Lampson got even. He hit Schweinsteiger with a ball and the German stopped, yelled “Matt Lampson!” (sidenote: hearing Schweinsteiger’s German accent exclaim an Anglo name was very amusing) and then proceeded to blame Lampson in jest to the reporters for giving up two goals in the previous game.

“He certainly likes to have a good time and it’s nice that he doesn’t take himself too seriously because when you have a guy that’s won everything in the world of soccer it would be easy for him to be a prick,” Lampson said. “But he’s awesome. Not only when it comes to the locker room, but also just in terms of me learning from him. The time that he takes to teach and provide me with knowledge and the rest of the guys with knowledge is pretty remarkable of him because he doesn’t have to do that. He wants to win and he wants to help everybody else. He wants to help us become better players.”

As for who’s the team’s class clown?

“He’s a clown,” Lampson said. “I’ll let him have the title.”

Schweinsteiger has shown his willingness to be loose with the media as well, even though he did on one occasion after a loss decline to talk to reporters. He will give a thoughtful answer, but isn’t afraid to make fun of a question or joke with reporter.

As an in-season addition, his locker is at the end of the Fire locker room inside Toyota Park. Last season, his was next to Joao Meira. After one game Schweinsteiger, who is typically one of the first out of the shower, already had a crowd of reporters around him. The semi-circle crowd around Schweinsteiger meant Meira, who was in only his towel and shower sandals, couldn’t get to his locker. Schweinsteiger laughed and pointed to Meira’s locker and says, “Here’s your seat, Joao.”

It’s not all just laughs with Schweinsteiger. Another locker room occurence that stood out was when he decided to take control over reporter etiquette.

After Schweinsteiger’s first few matches with the Fire, the crowd of reporters was especially large. A woman reporter asked a question, but got talked over by another reporter. Schweinsteiger stopped and said “No, she was asking.” The woman laughed it off, called Schweinsteiger a gentleman, and then asked her question.

Schweinsteiger has also had some positive interactions with the women of the Chicago Red Stars. The Red Stars use the same training field as the Fire and take the field after the Fire leave so there is often some overlap for Fire players who stay a bit late or are slow to leave the field.

In June, Schweinsteiger stayed late after practice and the Red Stars had already started warming up. He decided to start playing with the Red Stars, kicking back and forth with Stephanie McCaffrey.

He would talk to some of the other players and stayed to watch the Red Stars practice, seemingly mesmerized by it. Later in the season, he was wearing a Red Stars jacket while signing a series of autographs for team giveaways.

Schweinsteiger’s presence will always be a big deal on the field and from a marketing perspective, but his personality with the team has shown on several occasions to also be valuable to the Fire.

“It helps, just charisma in the locker room and everywhere, it’s very helpful and it helps the other guys to be in a good mood just to feed from that energy that is coming from him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “It gives the team a default mood, a positive mood, everyday and that’s what you need to work. That’s what you need to live together and spend time together.”

Schweinsteiger is back for 2018. Let’s see what kind of amusing interactions he will provide this year.

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

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Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.